Portrait of Julius Caesar (oil on canvas). Based on bust of the ruler from the British Museum. Mark James Miller (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Alea iacta est!: Plutarch and the Event of the Self

For Plutarch, life and the course of history insist that we face up to who we are and this is as harrowing as it is liberating; it is the source of our destruction as much as it is the springboard for our accomplishments.

The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives
W. W. Norton
Jan 2018

In January 49BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river with the 13thLegion. At this point in his career, Caesar was a revered warrior (particularly owing to his conquests in Gaul), a famed proconsul and governor over a huge swath of land running from southern Gaul to Illyricum (on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea), a member of the First Triumvirate (an informal but formidable power-sharing conspiracy with Pompey and Crassus), and a cult of personality wildly popular with soldiers and the common people of Rome but held with great suspicion by the senators and aristocracy. His term as governor having come to an end, Caesar was concerned with maintaining some hold on the power he had attained.

A proconsul was usually a former consul, as was the case with Caesar, that has power over a region outside of Rome itself. Thus, he had the authority to lead an army and conduct war. Typically, a proconsul held the position for a year. Caesar was granted five years and then was given another unprecedented five-year extension. Furthermore, a proconsul is immune from prosecution. Caesar had used the prior decade to amass quite a large territory for Rome and he didn’t want to lose the prestige he had won to an opponent. More to the point, he had conducted these wars without the authority of the Senate and thus was subject to prosecution the moment he lost immunity and became a private citizen again. He sought either an extension of his governorship or permission to run for consulship despite the fact that he was not present in the city.

By this point, Crassus was dead and Caesar’s alliance with Pompey had soured considerably; Pompey was in charge at Rome. Because the political situation had fallen into such a distressed state, Pompey was appointed sole consul; usually there were two consuls elected for a one-year joint term but in times of crisis Roman law permitted a temporary dictatorship. Pompey and Caesar were caught in a standoff. Pompey insisted that Caesar disband his army and the Senate refused to allow Caesar to run for consul in absentia. As far as Caesar was concerned (and there were senators and others in support of this point of view), his army served as a necessary counterpoise to Pompey and his army; either they should both dismiss their forces or neither should. Pompey attempted to increase his forces, only to face a general reluctance on the part of the populace.

It was illegal to bring an army into Rome. By crossing the Rubicon with the 13thLegion, Caesar knew he was, in effect, declaring civil war. He had the support of his army and a considerable portion of the populace, but this was not a step to be taken lightly. By all accounts, he temporized. The Greek biographer Plutarch (Lucius Plutarchus) claimed, in his book on Caesar from Parallel Lives, that Caesar was unsure of himself and how posterity would view his next move. He changed his mind continuously, consulted friends, altered his plan of attack, despaired of the possible consequences of his actions, and then threw himself and his army across the river. In his book on Pompey—translated alongside the books on Caesar, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony by Pamela Mensch in newly released The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives—Plutarch put the matter more concisely and more poetically:

And when he had reached the banks of the Rubicon, a river that was the boundary of his allotted province, he stood in silence and hesitated a little, reflecting on the magnitude of the adventure he was undertaking. Then, like men who hurl themselves from some cliff into a vast abyss, he shut the eyes of reason, averting them from the thought of danger; and merely calling out in Greek to those near him, “Let the die be cast,” he led his army across the river (72).

As is often the case in Plutarch’s writing, a lot is going on here within the interstices of these seemingly simple assertions.

Destiny and man; the force of political movements and individual choice; the macrocosmic impersonal tendencies of history and the microcosmic moment-to-moment decision making of the individual. On the one hand, as Plutarch makes utterly clear in both of his accounts, the decisive moment at the Rubicon was actually the result of a long stream of events that gradually eroded the republican institutions of Rome and prepared the way for Imperial Rome and the succession of dictators. The Marian reforms that created a standing army, the prolonged and vicious dictatorship of Sulla, and the First Triumvirate all foretold the collapse of Roman government as it had been established. The mere expansion of Roman holdings, the vast territories containing various peoples with their differing languages and customs, had outstripped the Republic’s ability to govern; the foundation was crumbling and something was going to have to take its place; all things at that time pointed toward autocratic rule as the most feasible solution despite the obvious distaste for dictatorship among the members of the Senate.

On the other hand, the decision of what to do in that moment, of whether or not to proceed with what was essentially a coup d’état, fell to a single man, unsure of what that decision would bring, and how it would be understood. Something of this tension between the overriding forces of history and the moment of personal decision can be felt in this brief excerpt. Caesar is faced with the sublime grandeur, the incomprehensible magnitude of that frozen instant when he found himself perched on what Plutarch so aptly describes as a precipice atop an abyss. Notice that ultimately the decision is made through the abnegation (and not as a consequence) of reason. It is as though the choice, in some larger sense, was already made and Caesar simply had to abandon himself to it.

Even the famous line that Caesar quotes from the Greek playwright Menander raises the question of agency within this historical moment. Plutarch claims that Caesar uttered the phrase in the original Greek (Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος), which will be a disappointment to all devotees of Latin who, following Suetonius’s account, memorized it as alea iacta est. The difference matters. The Latin is best translated as “The die is cast” or “The die has been cast”. It is in the passive voice, suggesting that Caesar has no choice to make here, the matter is out of his hands; events are under way regardless of Caesar’s volition and the force of history trumps the desires of the individual. The Greek has a different translation (“Let the die be cast”) and therefore a different set of implications. Here it may still be the case that history marches forth of its own accord but Caesar acquiesces, rather than resists, and embraces his fate. The distinction may seem minimal and yet it strongly impacts how one is to understand this moment of “decision”.

In neither case does Caesar posit himself as the moving force behind the action but in the Greek his will is not left out of account altogether. He endorses the inevitability of the fall of the Roman Republic and the coming into being of a new order. While Imperial Rome was brought about by forces far exceeding the power and volition of Caesar, his decision to acquiesce was still momentous. In one way of looking at the world, the sort of vision endorsed—I would argue—by Plutarch, our acquiescence to the call of history and of the mysterious inborn qualities of the self are precisely what constitute our most defining decisions. This is far from being a platitudinous adjuration to “Be yourself”. For Plutarch, I contend, life and the course of history insist that we face up to who we are and this is as harrowing as it is liberating; it is the source of our destruction as much as it is the springboard for our accomplishments.

As James Romm indicates in his Preface to The Age of Caesar, this tension between man and destiny is precisely the one Plutarch exploited in his distinction between history proper and his Lives. As Plutarch wrote in his introduction to his Life of Alexander:

[I]t is not histories I am writing, but lives; and the most glorious deeds do not always reveal the workings of virtue or vice. Frequently, a small thing—a phrase or a flash of wit—gives more insight into a man’s character than battles where tens of thousands die, or vast arrays of troops, or sieges of cities. Accordingly, just as painters derive their likenesses from a subject’s face and the expression of his eyes, where character shows itself, and attach little importance to other parts of the body, so must I be allowed to give more attention to the manifestations of a man’s soul, and thereby mold an image of his life. (xvii)

Plutarch holds then that history proper addresses events in the sense of the “march of history”, that seemingly uncheckable tide of development that gives rise to the creation, transformation, and decay of states and civilizations. History investigates the “glorious deeds”, those outsized moments after which nothing remains the same, the moments that define eras and the concrete situations of peoples. This is the realm of statistics and historical trends. It is less concerned with “virtue or vice” and more concerned with what happened. The history proper concerns itself with establishing fact and charting the progress of civilizations and governments.

On the other hand, there is the life and this is Plutarch’s chosen subject. The life (or biography), for Plutarch, is an ethical venture. It is designed to peer behind the curtain of history toward the ethical core of the Self and its intentions, its hopes and dreams, its potentialities and failings. For Plutarch, intentions matter even when they do not manifest themselves in concrete material events. Facts are brutish and in a very real sense meaningless. They only take on meaning when they are interpreted by a meaning-creating Self; History (in Plutarch’s conception) is a meaningless structure upon which meaning is constructed by those who live through it. Living (and the life or biography that charts that activity) is thus an inherently ethical concern that gives rise to and depends upon meaning. Indeed, Plutarch intended his work (and apparently employed his work) as a model for learning right behavior through the careful assessment of the virtuous and vicious in his subjects—and nearly none of them are depicted as predominantly virtuous or vicious (with some possible exceptions—for example, Plutarch has little sympathy for Antony).

Plutarch excavates that meaning in the seemingly inconsequential: the flash of wit and the turn of phrase as manifestations of the mortal soul. In Plutarch’s portrayal of the “Age of Caesar”, the Roman citizens themselves were ever alert to the slightest indications of a person’s inner character as a means of assessing his trustworthiness and his potential as a leader. A common invective in this period, apparently, was to suggest that a man scratched his head with one finger (see p. 58, where Clodius accuses Pompey of this fault; it recurs in most of the lives collected here). This was supposed to be a sign of effeminacy and dissolution. So, in this seemingly most inconsequential of behaviors the inner secrets of a man’s soul and his capacity for leadership are revealed.

And yet, for Plutarch the Self is not radically dissevered from the event. Indeed, personality—that is, the Self—is a kind of event. Events are disruptive; they intercede within the expected flow of the quotidian. An event, having occurred, alters the landscape of the normative. The event is the moment that signals that nothing is or can ever be as it once was. Crossing the Rubicon was an event in this strong sense. It was the irreversible step into the unforeseen. It was an act that served not only as a declaration of war but also served as a marker of the erosion of the old way of doing things; it designated the fall of the Republic and the rise of autocracy. Unless one believes in fate, it was not a given that Caesar would triumph. Ptolemy could have been victorious. But in either case, the Roman Republic was doomed—a dictatorship was inevitable with the collapse of the Senate’s ability to persuade its military commanders to relinquish their armies when approaching Rome.

That moment (the crossing of the Rubicon)—Plutarch seems to suggest—was founded on a different manner of event: the advent of Caesar and the force of his personality. We tend to think that our character is not in itself within the category of the deed. We may concede that our deeds derive from our character but modern thought generally holds deeds and character to be ontologically distinct. For Plutarch, things appear to be a bit more complicated. It is true, of course, that Plutarch understands and accepts the distinction. After all, that distinction is the very basis of his differentiation between history proper and the life. And yet, character in Plutarch shares important characteristics with the event. Character is an intercession within the world as it was. If a character is forceful enough (and if it wasn’t, Plutarch was hardly likely to devote a “Life” to it) then it too marks the moment of irreversible change. With the advent of a Caesar, a Cicero, or a Brutus, nothing could remain as it was.

This sets up a crucial dialectic between action and the Self in Plutarch. The Self is more than its actions but action is our best way of seeing the Self-hood of others. The most revelatory actions, however, are not the great deeds—those are too epochal, and involve too many conflicting causal factors, including too many personalities to reveal much about any individual character. The Self is revealed through the small behaviors, casual gestures, unspoken reticence, the turn of phrase. The Self may be revealed by what one doesn’t do as much as what one does. Indeed, character can often contravene one’s better (rational) judgement: “For a feeling of arrogance, coming over Pompey in the course of the great public rejoicing, overrode calculations grounded upon facts” (69). Pompey, in Plutarch’s account, often found himself at a crossroads between what he understood strategically as the best decision and how he wanted to be seen by others. Unwilling to disappoint his friends by using his own judgment, Pompey made a series of mistakes in his efforts against Caesar that directly contributed to his downfall (80).

Thus, we start to see in Plutarch that the Self is a reservoir of potentialities not fully under our control. This is why, so often in these accounts, the figure’s rational self-interest comes into conflict with his vision of his ideal social Self. The Self, in Plutarch, is not the result of rational calculation; we do not create our Selves although we cultivate and develop them. The Self recedes from our grasp into an infinity of possibilities. We may chart the probabilities of a certain character behaving in a certain way, and yet the Self can always intervene to surprise us; there is always the possibility of the historical swerve—unexpected, unpredictable, cataclysmic. The awesome power of the Self and its unbridled potential for changing the course of history is major component of the theater of life. Plutarch, for instance, depicts a group of people witnessing the crucial battle between Pompey and Caesar:

But a few of the noblest Romans, and some Greeks who were present without taking part in the battle, seeing that the crisis was imminent, considered to what pass greed and contentiousness had brought the empire. Kindred arms and fraternal ranks drawn up under the same standards, the great manliness and strength of a single city now turning against itself, showed how blind and how mad a thing human nature is when possessed by passion. (83)

Notice that detachment from the event is necessary if one is to adequately grasp the meaning of the historical moment, the causal force of the Self, and the vicissitudes of human nature. These observers, perhaps because they do not participate, are the “noblest” of the Romans. They are the ones that know, that understand. The pageant of war laid out before them, they realize the futility of it all. This passage nicely brings together Plutarch’s concern for the event and the Self. The crisis is imminent, it is not to be denied or waylaid. The great force of the city is now turned against itself in civil war; order dissipates into chaos. At the center of it all, in some incalculable form of causality, is the mad, passionate Self, vying for control, following out the mysterious precepts of its being, unchecked by reason, an expression of some unforeseen but palpable force.

Plutarch posits a confrontation of the Self and event. A person can’t control the event; it arises from unseen historical forces that far exceed the power of any given individual. The event impedes upon humanity in the manner of fate—ineluctable and irreversible, the impersonal event establishes a new era, a new social organization, a new manner of thinking. And yet, within those events people act. Those acts are partly rational (dictated by a careful sifting of opinion and fact) and partly something else, something harder to discern that Plutarch seems to consider the hidden reservoir of the Self. In this sense, the Self too is a kind of fate. This is perhaps most touchingly conveyed in Plutarch’s account of Brutus. Brutus is almost too honest and too selfless in Plutarch’s narrative. It is the fate of his personality that forces Brutus to succumb to the savagery of the event of Caesar’s murder. Plutarch never endorses the act but Brutus is portrayed as a victim of his own character rather than a villain.

There is a troubling pre-Freudian vision at work in Plutarch. Within each of us lurks a deeper Self to which we only have partial access. It may or may not be activated in its more extreme potentialities by the events of our historical era. That Self may coerce us to behave in a manner that contradicts our better judgment. And yet, to ignore the Self, to resist its blandishments, is not possible. We are forced to wrestle continually with this unknowable force that is ourselves. As was the case with Caesar standing at the edge of the Rubicon, Plutarch suggests, often our only choice when facing the Self is to abnegate, to fall in with the fate that we always already were.